The Whey Protein Manufacturing Process

by Christine Hronec

Whey protein was first recognized for beneficial human consumption during the bodybuilding boom in the late 1970’s [1]. Whey is a “complete” protein, meaning it contains all the essential amino acids that the human body requires for proper repair and function. It is also a highly biologically available protein, meaning that the body can easily break down and utilize this form of protein to support fat loss and the building of lean muscle mass. This highly sought after ingredient, now known for its high quality nutritive value, was once considered a useless by product of cheese manufacturing.

Whey protein production starts with whole milk, where the protein in cow’s milk is 20% whey protein and 80% casein protein [2]. The protein fraction in whey constitutes approximately 10% of the total dry solids in whey.When cheese is produced, pasteurized whole milk is acidified with bacterial enzymes. This causes the milk to sour and thicken into curds. The curds are separated for cheese production, where what is left over is a solution of lactose, saturated fat, cholesterol, soluble nutrients, and protein.

Advancements in micro-filtration and ion exchange were applied in the 1990’s which enabled an economical manufacturing process to separate lactose and fat from the whey protein. The extent of microfiltration indicates the grade of protein. Where whey protein concentrate, commonly known in the industry and listed as an ingredient on the most popular sports nutrition supplements, contains 80% protein, with the balance being carbs and fat. Whey protein isolate, is the highest quality whey protein at 90% protein, with zero fat and carbs due to its extended filtration processing which comes at a premium in price. After membrane filtration, spray drying is utilized to turn the highly concentrated solution of protein into an instantized, ready to mix powder for a broad array of commercial applications. The instantizing process typically involves the use of soy lecithin in trace amounts (

[2] Jay R. Hoffman and Michael J. Falvo (2004). “Protein – Which is best?”. Journal of Sports Science and Medicine 118–130.

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